Monday, February 28, 2011

The Magic Flute in the Age of Obama (part I)

(some thoughts after seeing The Magic Flute in concert at the Baltimore Symphony)

(The Overture in Kenneth Branagh's movie of The Magic Flute. Yes, he made a movie of the Magic Flute. Yes, it's like every other Branagh movie. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes unbearable.)

I have always struggled with The Magic Flute in a manner I never did with the rest of the major Mozart operas. The plot makes absolutely no sense, and that's only when the story isn't sounding notes unmistakably in favor of proto-fascism. The music is, of course, amazing - but not 100% of the time. There are passages that sound as though Mozart jotted down the first thing that came to mind without taking the time to make things musically interesting - because even Mozart's first thoughts weren't always the best. Tamino is a boring character who is by and large given boring music to sing. Like the great directors of classic Hollywood, Mozart was working on a schedule. And even in his greatest operas there are musical passages which are no more than functional, preceded and followed by music of the highest genius.

(Mozart's little known Adagio and Rondo for Glass Harmonica, Flute, Oboe, Viola and Cello. His interest in his last year seemed to turn to all sorts of otherworldly instruments)

What makes the Magic Flute work in spite of its flaws is its air of unreality. Mozart, with less than a year to live, wrote music that seems to emanate from the beyond. There are passages in the Magic Flute, many many passages, that seem to be too perfect for our world. The music of Mozart's last year: the clarinet concerto, Ave Verum Corpus, the last Piano Concerto, the final two String Quintets, the Magic Flute, La Clemenza di Tito, and the Requiem: all seem bathed in a light too shimmering to emanate from Earth. The old story goes that God may listen to Bach, but the Angels listen to Mozart.

(Andante in F for Mechanical Organ.)

We don't know what Mozart might have written had he lived as long as Beethoven or Haydn (would that Schubert lived as long as Mozart). Untouched as he was by the urge toward Romantic personalizing, the fact that Mozart died at the end of 1791 means that he died just as the cultural world's interest in formal perfection drew to a close. Whether that formal perfection is seen in a Canaletto painting, a Sheridan play, or a philosophical text from Kant or Rousseau, there was a definite predilection in the zeitgeist towards the most controlled possible order. In music, Haydn and Gluck may have codified the musical language of classical-era perfection, but Mozart brought that perfection to its zenith. Whether it was the fugal finale of the Jupiter Symphony, or the 20-minute-long through-composed finale to Act II of the Marriage of Figaro, or the theme and variations in the C-Minor Piano Concerto, Mozart managed certain feats of formal innovation that appeared beyond what all other composers could do. It was music so perfect that it seemed to have higher aims than mere expression. At Mozart's best, he did not write music without expression, he wrote music beyond expression. The greatness of Mozart lies within the fact that his music seems to express all emotions simultaneously. His greatest moments - and how many thousands of them are there? - seem to reflect back to us whatever emotions we need to read within them - from the happiest joy to the most mournful sadness, the highest seriousness to the lowest comedy.

(The slow movement of his final piano concerto)

And that fusion of music beyond music and form beyond form seems to find its highest expression in the sublimities of the Magic Flute. A piece written, as coincidence would have it, in 1791. Die Zauberflote stands as the musical endpoint of (what Hobsbawm would call) the short 18th century and all its hopes for how the 19th century would proceed. The dreams of the French Revolution hovered in the air, not to be shattered until well after Mozart was cold in the ground. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive" wrote Wordsworth of that period. It was one of those brief historical interregnums during which all things seem possible - much like the period following the Russian Revolution, the Velvet Revolution, and now perhaps the revolutions of the Middle East.

(Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II. Written in 1790, the piece in which Beethoven unmistakably becomes Beethoven)

A year earlier, an unknown 20-year-old composer named Ludwig van Beethoven had written two cantatas which suggested an altogether different kind of music. Before long, this revolutionary from Bonn would create music conveying emotions so primal that none could mistaken what they expressed. It was a different conception of what music was: confessional, abrasive, self-consciously disturbing. Some composers before Beethoven wrote music that disturbed, others wrote music that confessed, but no composer before Beethoven wrote music meant to convey their own private emotions as public statements. It was new music for an era that required new means of expression.

(d-minor Mozart. The key in which he came closest to Beethovenian personalization. And yet even at Mozart's ugliest there is always something in reserve.)

It was so shortly after Mozart's death that the idealism of the French revolution began to sour, and with the Revolution soured all the dreams of the Enlightenment - the abolition of aristocracy, the diminishment of clerical power, and most particularly the ability of a benevolent leadership to govern with enlightened judgement. And it is on that last point which The Magic Flute reveals its most disturbing problem.

(Sarastro's famous aria "O Isis und Osiris")

In the great Isaiah Berlin's seminal work, Two Concepts of Liberty, the great thinker warns against a particularly insidious totalitarian temptation. The temptation to ascribe enlightened benevolence to an authoritarian ruler whom his subjects can easily be seduced into perceiving as above the human lust for power. Berlin entitles this section 'The Temple of Sarastro.' And it is in Sarastro that we see Die Zauberflote's greatest problem - Tamino is asked to trust in a ruler that is all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-wise, and we the audience are supposed to approve of his decision to do so.

(A chorale that is unmistakably Mozart. and yet it could fit just as easily in Tannhauser.)

Mozart could never write music that sounds 'fascist,' and yet it cannot be denied that he comes a bit closer here than anywhere else in his output. There is something tub-thumping and proto-Wagnerian about the Sarastro scenes. It's not so much the music of Sarastro himself, whose music is in keeping with the wisdom and compassion a benevolent dictator would invariably bestow, as it is the music of his subjects. We are supposed to be greatly moved by Sarastro's beneficence, and even if we are, does it then follow that we ought to do as he asks and purify ourselves through fire or give our loved ones the silent treatment? Should we approve of the way Sarastro is worshiped by the surrounding throngs?

(my favorite number)

These are the reasons that The Magic Flute will always give me pause in a way that The Marriage of Figaro never could. But Mozart's music is such that all these concerns ultimately don't much matter. If Beethoven or Wagner set The Magic Flute's libretto, it might seem a stirring paean to absolutism and tyranny. But Mozart's aesthetic allows for the unreality that makes this opera resonate so vibrantly. The Magic Flute invariably seems far less a hymn to despotism than it does a fairy tale. "Wouldn't it be nice...", Mozart's music seems to say, "...if the secrets to life were as simple as they are in the temple of Sarastro?" Even at its most commanding, Mozart's music is too compassionate to allow for such a closed solution. It is music which hears within us our inner longing for life to be simpler, for us to live in a perfect kingdom of harmony and understanding, and for the forces of mystery and irrationality to be banished from the world. And yet because of the longing that Mozart stirs, this opera provokes ever greater mysteries in us all. Why is our world so far from Sarastro's? Why do hatred and vengeance prevail in a world in which we know that they ought to be banned? These were eternal questions when Mozart set the Magic Flute's libretto, and they are truer now than ever. Tomorrow I will (at least I hope to) delve into the reasons that The Magic Flute is far more timely than ever before in the age of Barack Obama, the Tea Party, the revolutions in the Middle East, the propaganda of Fox News and Al Jezeera masquerading as journalism, the importance of Facebook and Google, the rise of China, and the world's dependence upon autocracies based upon oil. Perhaps these connections will be unbearably contorted, but I believe they're worth mentioning. Like Mozart at his best, I report, you decide :).

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